Supporting new mothers in the workplace

August 14th, 2018

New kids on the block

The excitement that New Zealanders felt for Jacinda Ardern, their prime minister, became a worldwide buzz when on June 21, Ardern gave birth to her first child, a baby girl. On that day, Ardern became just the second female elected head of state to give birth while in office, following Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan, who gave birth to her second child in 1990. However, unlike Bhutto, Ardern will take six weeks of paid maternity leave, becoming the first head of state to do so. In her absence, the government will be led by Winston Peters, her deputy prime minister.

Relatedly, in April, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) became the first senator to give birth while in office. She joins a list of just nine other women to have given birth while serving in the United States government, all of them members of the House of Representatives (Duckworth gave birth to her first child while serving in the House). Just days after the birth, the Senate unanimously voted to allow babies onto the floor — a change made just in time for Duckworth to vote against the confirmation of NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine with her newborn daughter by her side. Maile Pearl, Duckworth’s daughter, became the first infant to appear in the active Senate chamber. In response to the vote that allowed children in the chamber, Duckworth tweeted, “By ensuring that no Senator will be prevented from performing their constitutional responsibilities simply because they have a young child, the Senate is leading by example & sending the important message that working parents everywhere deserve family-friendly workplace policies.”

While these two examples appear to show a shift in attitudes toward women in elected office having children and taking leave, the same attitudes are only slowly shifting for the American public overall.

Maternity leave in America

While Ardern can comfortably take six weeks of maternity leave, many Americans aren’t so fortunate. Currently, there’s no legislation in the United States guaranteeing mothers or fathers paid leave after the birth (or adoption) of a child. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which included a provision for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed to parents to care for a new child. Nearly 88 percent of civilian workers have access to this unpaid leave benefit.

While there are no government-enforced guarantees, many companies and organizations do offer paid maternity leave. The Pew Research Center found that in 2016, 14 percent of workers had access to paid maternity leave, up from 11 percent in 2010. However, the fields most likely to offer paid leave are concentrated in upper-middle-class job sectors such as finance and insurance, information technology, and scientific services. By contrast, unskilled laborers in fields such as construction have the lowest access, with just five percent of workers having access to paid maternity leave. In comparison, 37 percent of workers in finance and insurance jobs have access to such leave.

The United States is the only country in the developed world without guaranteed paid maternity leave. According to the United Nations Data Retrieval System, in Sweden, both parents have access to a combined total of 480 days of paid leave, with 60 days designated to each parent. The remaining 360 can be distributed between the parents. If there’s only one parent, then he or she receives all 480 days. In the United Kingdom, new parents have access to up to 52 weeks of paid maternity leave; and Australia gives new parents 18 weeks of paid leave. Even China has a 90-day paid maternity leave program.

Making maternity leave a priority

Scientific research points out the importance of bonding with babies in the first few months of their lives. The World Policy Analysis Center has found that countries with paid parental leave have lower rates of infant mortality, and mothers experience less postpartum depression.

Paid leave also alleviates the economic strain on families with new babies. With unpaid leave, household income drops at the same time expenses rise. The average two-parent household income drops 10 percent when a child is born and doesn’t recover until both parents are back in the workforce. For single mothers, income drops up to 42 percent when a baby is born, with decreases happening during pregnancy due to loss of hours.

Some families are making it work through the generosity of their coworkers. Angela Hughes of Missouri hadn’t been working at her new company long enough to qualify for maternity leave, so her coworkers chipped in and donated enough vacation hours for her to spend eight weeks at home. “It took a weight off my family’s shoulder,” Hughes said. “It really, really meant a lot to me. . . . I was extremely appreciative and very humbled.”

Critics have pointed out that donating vacation hours is an unsustainable solution to the maternity leave problem. Despite this example, few companies allow workers to donate their time to others. According to the 2018 Employee Benefits Survey, only 15 percent of employers allowed employees to donate their vacation time to coworkers.

Pew Research reports that most Americans are in favor of paid maternity leave; however, while 51 percent believe that paid leave should be mandated by the federal government, 48 percent believe that companies should decide for themselves whether to provide paid leave. Currently, the rules surrounding leave are determined by state laws and company policies. These laws and policies vary widely and often don’t make provisions for fathers or for leave in the case of adoption. While maternity leave benefits are certainly a top priority for those workers who have started or are planning to start a family, only 35 percent of the American public say that expanding maternity leave is a top priority.

Paternity leave

While much of the discussion around paid leave centers on new mothers, there’s a growing conversation about ensuring that fathers have paid leave as well. According to a policy brief released by the Department of Labor (DOL), “Seven in ten U.S. fathers taking parental leave took ten days of leave or less.” Additionally, in 2012, only 13 percent of men who took parental leave received pay, compared with 21 percent of women.

While women have pressing biological reasons for needing paid leave after the birth of a child, fathers shouldn’t be left out of this discussion. The DOL found that longer paternity leaves are associated with increased father engagement and bonding with the new child. A study comparing data from Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the United States suggests that longer paternity leave and the increased time fathers spend caring for their very young children are associated with higher cognitive test scores for their children. “Fathers taking parental leave helps not just children but moms, too, by changing who changes the diapers and the whole culture around work and family,” said Tom Perez, former secretary of labor.

A 2014 study indicated that 90 percent of “highly educated professional fathers” in the United States felt that paid parental leave would be important to them when looking for a new job. As American culture continues to embrace a more egalitarian view of parenthood, paternity leave will likely become an increasingly important topic.

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